I can justify anything. So can you.

My two favourite portal sites, Butterflies and Wheels and Science and Technology Daily linked to the same article today, a review of Mistakes were made (but not by me).

The book tries to explain why we sometimes fail to be good, to do the right thing, to live up to our own ethical ideals. In essence: …

This process is self-justification, and it is driven by an engine of cognitive dissonance, the discomfort we feel at the gap between our self-image and the less attractive reality that sometimes confronts us.

It works like this: I do something that I should not have done, and this troubles me, because I’m not the kind of person who does that sort of thing. Redressing the mistake will be even more painful or difficult than not committing it in the first place would have been. So, to salve this nagging complaint of the soul, I declare to myself that the act was the right one all along, and I confirm this by reinforcing it at the earliest possible opportunity.

The review covers a couple of cases of extraordinary self-justification, including the Andrew Wakefield and autism saga. And it shows that one of the reasons for revering science is that the process of doing science is robust against self-justification. It’s fascinating stuff. I recommend reading the article.

If this explanation of human behaviour is correct, I wonder to what extent it has come into play in our continuing failure to actually do something to stop child abuse. Sure, we all know that something has gone terribly wrong, and we can all point to possible causes, ranging from individual failure on the part of children’s caregivers, to failures of family to intervene, to sociological and economic conditions that seem to create environments in which violence flourishes. I doubt that any of these ’causes’ is sufficient on its own, but nevertheless, to the extent that we can point to them, and show that they are beyond our personal control, then we can justify our own lack of action.

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One response to “I can justify anything. So can you.

  1. I disagree. Being a man I should beg to disagree I guess :p

    Humans are not inherently good. We read history and yet keep believing in the blatant lie that we will improve. We can’t do the right we want to do and we do the evil we don’t want to do. Why? Because we are not free, we are slaves to our own passions.

    Until we can be freed from our condition we are doomed. But who can free us when all humans are slaves? Mmmm, I can’t so I’m no longer the Perfect Man. Perhaps Dawkins is, or knows who is?